In Conversation: Chris Highton

Thursday 29th December 2022
& News
Photography by: David Griffin

While skill and endeavour remain at the heart of cricket, professional or otherwise, coaching and analysis are also at the forefront of the modern game.

Chris Highton has spent the last couple of seasons working as the First Team Analyst and with immediate effect becomes the Second XI Coach and Head of Analytics.

Heritage Officer David Griffin met with Chris earlier this month to discuss his fascinating career to date, and of course, his new role.

Chris, before we look at your role at Derbyshire, can we go back to the beginning of your cricketing life and where did it all begin?

I come from a family where quite unusually nobody played cricket, although my dad was a decent, almost semi-professional footballer. In their pre-Football League days my dad turned down an opportunity to play for Wigan Athletic because there wasn’t really enough money in the game. This was in the late 1970s and he was better off getting a job outside football.

As a result, football was my first sporting love, but I began playing cricket in a school cricket competition and was pushed by my headteacher to go on an eight week coaching course, around about 1993. I was ten years old.

I carried on at senior school and a friend of mine recommended joining Hindley St. Peters Cricket Club in Wigan where I played for ten years.

What sort of cricketer were you?

A slow seam bowling all-rounder. I’d like to say a bit like Anuj Dal but he’s so much better than I could ever be!

While I was at Hindley I started to coach the junior age group sides. I’d be about 18 when I started my coaching and completed my Level One and Level Two qualifications.

That appears to be a relatively young age to be going into coaching. What was the motivation?

I wanted to give something back after ten years at the club and I enjoyed it because I’d spent so much time from childhood at the club. I played in all the age group sides and was there three or four nights a week as well as at weekends and was playing in the first team aged 14 or 15.

What league were you playing in?

This was the Manchester Association – a league which no longer exists.

You presumably enjoyed coaching?

Yes, I did although it was also a bit of a necessity at that time too because there were so many junior cricketers emerging but too few coaches. I began with an under nines side and took it from there.

What route had you taken in education while you were involved in cricket as a youngster?

I was doing Physical Education at college for my A-levels and Media Studies as well. I wanted to be a Physio originally but couldn’t pass Biology – I failed my A-level three times – so then I was considering Sports Journalism but after A-levels I went to  Liverpool Hope University and did a Sports Coaching degree and thought that this was the likeliest line of work I wanted to follow.

I was still living in Wigan so lived at home while at university and as a result I was able to afford a trip to the Caribbean to watch England and also went to Australia for the Ashes, largely through not having spent a fortune on accommodation at university.

And what cricket did you play while at university?

Well, I continued to play at Hindley and then moved to Wigan Cricket Club – a step up in quality – who play in the Liverpool and District Cricket Competition. This was a better standard than I’d been used to with several Lancashire players knocking around including Paul Horton and the New Zealander Aaron Redmond. This league has become the one to which Lancashire push their younger players to gain good quality experience and I actually played alongside Matt Critchley at Wigan when he was 15.

After university I was considering a career as a PE teacher but it seemed as if everyone wanted to do that and I couldn’t get on a PCGE course for love nor money, so I went to work in an office, originally for five weeks and ended up there for four and a half years.

What office work were you doing?

I was a Human Resources Officer, which is as glamorous as it sounds, but I continued coaching and playing and biding my time really, before in 2008 I got a job with the Lancashire Cricket Board as a Chance to Shine coach, going into schools.

How did that role come about?

At the time Chance to Shine was putting more financial resources into schools cricket so various roles were created in Lancashire and I was lucky enough to get one of their positions based in Oldham.

I was with the Lancashire Cricket Board for ten years and they put me through my Level Three coaching course here at Derby in 2012.

Who was on your 2012 course here at Derby?

Ant Botha, Neil Carter, Dimitri Mascarenas. Mads (Wayne Madsen) jumped in for one session – I think he’d missed a module so joined us briefly for a session. Chris Taylor, the England fielding coach, and Jon Batty were also on my course.

What was it like working alongside international and county players. How did they react to your presence on a course attended by so many senior professional figures?

I think I was able to bring something different to the course. I’d be asked what I did and when I explained that I went into schools to coach kids, the response was often; “Well, I couldn’t do that!”

So I brought a different skill set, one that didn’t include experience of first class cricket but I did have alternative experience and I enjoyed sharing my experiences while at the same time picking the brains of these former and current pros.

Unquestionably, the ex-pros passed on loads of knowledge about the pro game onto me. It was a really useful course and the tutors were outstanding. I loved every minute of it.

How did you put that qualification into use?

I spent a lot of time considering that because I wanted to move further up the cricketing pathway. I started to coach the Lancashire Under-15 Girls which is so different to working in Boys cricket, and I also began working on the EPP (Emerging Players Programme) with both boys and girls and also got involved in some Academy sessions too.

As a coach, how much of the role is about looking for that special player with a spark of brilliance, and how much is about player development?

It’s definitely a bit of both. You are always looking to see if someone stands out and has that X-factor – extreme pace, or the ability to turn the ball sharply, or take bowlers on with the bat. But a coaching role has to include a great degree of nurturing and guidance, trying to get the best out of any individual.

Most of us who watch from the sidelines won’t know how you carry out a coaching role. Is it about getting a bat and ball and demonstrating how to do certain things, or is it more about getting into the mind of a cricketer?

The best thing that ever happened for me in terms of my coaching philosophy was getting involved in disability cricket, specifically Physical Disability Cricket, in 2015.

There are four England impairment groups – Physical Disability, Learning Disability, Hearing Impaired and Visually Impaired and a colleague I worked with at Lancashire had just taken over as Head Coach of the England Physical Disability side and wanted some help in the winter. I agreed but didn’t know what to expect.

Once I got there and began working with very talented players but who had some form of physical disability, it became clear that I had to formulate a way of working with them.

Can you give an example?

Yes. A lad within the set-up, Mike Askin, is a lower arm amputee, so is essentially playing cricket with just one arm. So you can’t talk to him about a strong top hand because he’s not got one. That was a light bulb moment for me. It told me that coaching was about the individual and how can I best assist that person to become a better player, rather than just throwing technical stuff around. It was absolutely pointless showing Mike how I might do something because he physically couldn’t replicate it. This was a clear demonstration to me that there’s no one-size-fits-all coaching module.

What is the standard like?

Oh they’re proper players. Many are playing Premier League cricket but there are elements of support which many need, especially with the visually impaired cricketers. Family support is very important and the ECB fund it well.

How long did you work with the England Physical Disability side?

I coached them until the beginning of 2022. It was very rewarding.

And presumably you were still playing cricket and working at Lancashire?

Yes. Monday to Friday I was working in schools, at the weekend I was playing and also coaching disability cricket. Training camps for disability cricket were over weekends – usually in the winter – and their fixtures were on a Sunday because most of the players were playing club cricket on a Saturday.

It was hectic to say the least!

How is England Disability Cricket funded and is it sustainable?

The ECB fund it and one could always ask for more but they do provide really good training camps and tours, plus kit and hotels, but the players remain as amateurs and if they go on an overseas tour they need to take time off from work to do so.

And how successful are they on the field?

In 2015 they won a World Series competition in Bangladesh and we’ve had two series over here since, losing in the final both times against India.

The learning disability guys currently hold the Ashes which they won in Australia in March of this year; the hearing impaired team did the same, and the visually impaired side were semi-finalists in the last World Cup.

These players are very competitive; they don’t want opposition sides to take it easy. For example, when they play The Army, they expect the opposition to go all out. They want to be challenged.

From carrying out a variety of roles, as well as being a family man, how did you condense your working life into that of an analyst in professional cricket?

It all came about from a conversation with Jason Swift who is now a Match Referee is county cricket. I played against him when he came over from Australia and played as a pro for Bolton Cricket Club. At that time he was still involved in coaching at Bolton School and was working as an analyst at Lancashire and then went to coach at Sussex.

I’d spent five years coaching in schools and was looking for a new challenge. It had been a dream job aged 25, but I wanted to try something new. Jason and I discussed analysis and he felt it would be a good opportunity for me.

I went on a Performance Analysis course…

Was this cricket-based, or generic?

This was generic – but sports-based.

Bearing in mind that most people who read this interview will know that sports analysts exist without knowing what they do, so what did you go on the course to learn?

The course was very interesting with people from football, Rugby League, Gaelic Football and cricket represented.

Obviously, cricket is a statistics-based game, but analysis offers a different approach to the game and this course demonstrated to me that analysis could be effective to performance.

After that it was about learning on the job. My first day of actual work experience as an analyst was here at Derbyshire!

Were you mindful that professional analysis of professional sport was a growing industry and that opportunities might therefore present themselves to you?

Absolutely. In 2015, cricket data analysis was in its relative infancy; in virtually no time at all it’s gone stratospheric in terms of growth. It’s only going to grow further – in all sports.

How did the job at Derbyshire materialise then?

Having completed the course I needed to see how analysis worked in practice. I had worked alongside AJ (Andrew) Harris on my Level Three coaching course and got on with him very well so I sent him a speculative email back in 2013 when he was coaching here at Derbyshire to ask if I could have a session alongside the Club Analyst, David Smith.

He invited me down to a pre-season game against Notts – it was about as cold as it is today (the thermometer reads 3 degrees Celsius) and I sat with Dave Smith and watched Ajmal Shahzad run in and bowl for Notts.

I really enjoyed the experience but only did a couple of days and then returned to my Lancashire role.

I then worked on analysis pre-Covid with the ECB but was made redundant in October 2020 and when the opportunity came to take the role here at Derbyshire in 2021 I was naturally delighted.

We’ve enjoyed world class cricketers at Derbyshire, but never signed a world class coach. What was your reaction to Mickey Arthur’s arrival?

Nervous! He sent me a message and I was too frightened to send a reply. But before he came over to England I did message him, introduced myself, and when he arrived we had a really good staff meeting. He made it clear that my domain is analysis and he expected me to do it my way, trusting me to deliver. He treats every department the same. He doesn’t exactly leave you to it, but he does recognise that we are a team of coaches and analysts and we are trusted to carry out our jobs in a positive environment.

Mickey is a cricket addict – he has so much experience and it’s impossible not to be positively impacted by his enthusiasm and knowledge. And Mickey wants to see progression from us coaches as well as players and so I’m hugely grateful for the new opportunity I’m just beginning.

So how do you actually carry out the analysis here at Derbyshire?

In cricket, we use software which allows us to do what is known as coding.

We have live video footage – exactly the same footage that people watching the live stream see – and we clip every ball and add our own specific data to it.

As a player runs in to bowl, I follow the action and plot the line of the ball, where it pitches, what line or trajectory the ball follows, what shot is played, where does the ball go from the bat?

How difficult is that to do? Ask ten people to describe – accurately – where a ball landed, precisely, on the pitch, and there’d be ten different responses.

I replay the ball – in four day cricket that’s quite straightforward, but not as easy in T20 when there’s spin at both ends and Wayne (Madsen) bowling six balls in a minute and a half.

And when Alex Thomson bowled 12 maidens in a row here against Sussex, with maidens coming at the other end as well, it was a bit of a challenge to keep replaying the delivery. Catching up between overs is my occasional fall-back!

And what software do you use?

We have a specific to cricket software called PCS Pro which every county uses. Every county analyst is therefore recording the same type of information which goes into a Cloud system and is then available to the ECB and all 18 counties. And that’s how we gain our own footage of other players and teams to feed into our pre-match analysis of the opposition.

Everyone has access to all the data – it’s how we utilise it for our benefit which is obviously important and an essential part of my role.

Do you carry out coding for every game?

Not at away games. It’s the role of the home analyst to complete the coding so I’m in the dressing room watching the stream and completing all the coding live. At away matches, my opposition counterpart does all of that which allows me to do more coaching.

How do you concentrate in a dressing room full of cricketers?

96 overs per day can be a challenge! Players are always seeking advice, and often want to see a re-run of their dismissal. T20 can be hectic and often a coach will be asking questions over my shoulder. Mickey will be pacing around, while other players will want to see what the ball is doing. There is no better place to be though – right in the heart of the dressing room. It’s great.

So while coding and analysis sounds very intense, you must enjoy the chance to get outside and involve yourself in coaching?

Yes, 100 per cent. That’s where this new role (Second XI Coach and Head of Analytics) will allow me greater coaching opportunities although as an avid analyst I’ll get to utilise my skills and knowledge in that area when I’m coaching.

How will you combine your roles?

We’re having some students coming in from Derbyshire University – the analyst circuit is growing – and sports performance analysis degrees are now available, so we’re utilising our relationship with the university to offer working experience.

How does Alex Hughes fit into this arrangement?

Alex is going to take my job title of Analyst and Support Coach, so he’ll assist me with the day to day running of the Second XI and try and shape the way we do our analysis.

He’s looking at a lot of white ball data at the moment and putting some profiles together.

In a team meeting before a game, what is the involvement of an analyst?

We’ve got data going back many years now but although we want a decent sample size we try to keep things current. We certainly don’t want to take analysis from just one game as that doesn’t give you sufficient information for in-depth analysis so we’ll go back a couple of seasons. We’ll look at seven or eight opposition batters and work out how best to dismiss them, and look at what their preferred areas of scoring are.

What we don’t do is spend too much time on analysis, leaving the players twiddling their thumbs and having to take too much information on board. If we overload them it becomes counter-productive.

And even after the analysis has been delivered, a discussion around the room – especially with the experienced players like Mads (Wayne Madsen, Reecy, (Luis Reece) and Billy (Godleman) – allows them to offer the real world advice and suggestions.

It must be rewarding when an element of analysis comes good.

Oh yes. When a plan comes off it’s great. Ultimately, I deliver the stats pack, as we call it, and try to ensure that our players are as well-prepared as they can be.

I can only suggest things, but the player is responsible for the execution, but when it works, it’s really rewarding.

Some of our players are analytical by nature. Watty (Mark Watt) will do a lot of his own research; others might not. They go on feel or instinct, or whatever and that’s fine. I accept that analysis is for some but not for everybody. Some lads want some basic stuff – you know, what is a bowler’s stock ball, or variation, and leave it at that.

What’s critical for me is that I have prepped the guys as well as possible.

And what’s the difference between coaching in schools 15 years ago, and coaching county cricketers?

The standard of county cricket is very good and for me the first 12 months here at Derbyshire was about building relationships with players and establishing what they need to improve. Sometimes, it’s literally ball-feeding, throwing a few underarms – that might be all they need.

But others need more, and some will ask about their head positioning or stance, and I try to observe and recognise that they’ve reached this level because they are good players and the wheel doesn’t need re-investing, but they might just need a tweak.

Communication and relationship-building is vital. Creating an environment where a player trusts me – especially having never played professional cricket – is also crucial.

So if a player is out of form, do you see that as more psychological or technical?

Easy ones are where the data shows that a player has been caught behind 75 per cent of the time to a right arm seamer when the ball has pitched on the line of fourth stump every time. That suggests a technical element we need to consider.

And in the main, a player knows what’s wrong but sometimes needs an alternative voice to confirm it. It’s also important for me to make sure a player doesn’t see analysis as a weapon, or a threat. When analysts first entered the game, I think players may have thought that he was the person who was going to get them dropped! Now it’s more about relationship-building and getting players to re-visit footage of successful innings or bowling performances and seeing what methods they previously used to be successful.

So, with a new role for 2023, and after a much improved 2022, what’s next for you and for Derbyshire?

I think that seeing better performances and results in 2022 was hugely rewarding and it is hopefully the start of things to come. It’s been a really positive year, and my new job will offer even greater opportunities to have an influence within the club.

How do you anticipate doing that in the Second XI?

Well, the creation of a winning culture starts with Smitty (Daryn Smit) in the Academy, passing on to me in the seconds and then to the first team. It sounds cliched but winning is a habit and if we get to that stage where you see positive results on a regular basis, then it can be transformative. Archie Harrison and Mitch Wagstaff are coming onto the staff with Rookie deals and the potential to have them exposed to better players in second team cricket is a great opportunity for them, especially against counties with bigger squads. However, nobody should want to spend too much time with me this summer…they should all want to be in the first team!

But essentially my role is to create opportunities via coaching, planning, analysis and playing, for second eleven cricketers to graduate to the first team and make sure they’re ready to meet that challenge when they get there. Once we’ve built competition for places, then the next cab off the rank needs to be prepared to slip seamlessly into the first eleven.

We know we’ve got Mickey Arthur here for a further three seasons, plus some really good emerging players alongside the experienced players, so what are your expectations for the coming few years here at Derbyshire?

Well, the focus has to be on the here and now as a priority. If you’d said to me two years ago that I’d be heading up a first class county second eleven I’d have questioned your sanity but having got this far I can’t wait to take things further, developing the lads when they come from the Academy. We also need to look at triallists where there’s a need, not just playing them to make up numbers. We have a real focus on becoming successful and attracting good players who bring us value. In 12 months time I want to be sitting here talking about having won trophies. I want to win games and trophies, not fulfil fixtures. If players play well, the team does well, and trophies will follow. Our second eleven batters and bowlers have to be knocking on Mickey’s door.

And ideally, if we can produce some homegrown talent to the first team, that’s the icing on the cake.

Fascinating stuff, Chris, best wishes in your new role and thank you.

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